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How to be a better leader

Hooman in a boat sailing towards lighthouse

Stepping into my first leadership position was the trigger for me to engage with my first coach. Leadership was something I had strived for since school. In the careers talk I had aged fourteen (and I use that term very loosely!), I told them I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do (common life theme!), but I definitely wanted to manage people. So, when I finally got there, I assumed I would be amazing at it.

I was not.

It was crushingly disappointing, and it hugely affected my confidence in the workplace. I had wrongly assumed that if I was a subject matter expert, then leading a team in this discipline was going to come naturally.

The issue, I latterly understood, was that knowing your profession as an individual contributor, in no way guarantees you the skill set needed to lead. (And noting that management and leadership were different roles).

It turns out I had the mindset of a traditional manager: [1]

  • I had developed expertise in my professional domain

  • I thought I had right answers

  • I assumed I had proven myself by moving up the ladder

  • I tried to ensure that my team reached the same answers as me

  • I believed I knew what needed to be done

  • I taught others how to do things

  • And then I evaluated their performance

There were occasions when this approach had its place, at least for me – when there was an emergency and something needed to be done immediately, the JFDI (just f-ing do it) approach can be effective in hitting a deadline or target. But on the whole, it just didn’t work for me as a long-term strategy, and it certainly didn’t foster team collaboration, trust or enjoyment. I found my team pulling away and I perceived this to be a challenge or rejection of me as their manager. Here rolled in imposter syndrome, of and of course ego, ego, ego!

This traditional approach suggests that the leader knows it all, or at least they portray that they do, and it undermines the concept, the very obvious fact, that there is knowledge expertise and value in the team. Because of course if there wasn’t, then the team wouldn’t be required at all. Remember Carol Dweck? She developed the model for fixed versus growth mindset, the concept that we are not born with a set of skills and that’s it, rather we can learn and develop throughout our life. And, if we put this into the context of leadership it would look something like this.

Knower versus Learner Mindset
ICF UK Chapter

My initial approach of trying to demonstrate my knowledge to my team, trying to prove my worth, in fact had a detrimental effect on team dynamics and therefore in turn my own personal feelings. It started to become a vicious cycle.

So, what can we do? How can we become a better leader? Well for me, the answer was coaching. Yes, I got myself a coach and worked one to one, and that helped. But focussing on a different way of working, on strengthening different skill muscles was what reaped constructive and consistent change for the better. These skills? Often referred to as soft skills or social skills and are in fact all coaching skills.

When we refer to “social skills,” we mean certain specific capabilities, including a high level of self-awareness, the ability to listen and communicate well, a facility for working with different types of people and groups, and what psychologists call “theory of mind”—the capacity to infer how others are thinking and feeling. HBR

Here are 4 coaching skills that we can all bring into our leadership took kit:

Self-Management - part of emotional intelligence. In order for us to regulate our own emotions in the moment, we need to develop a deep awareness of self. It requires empathy and the ability to recognise the emotion in others. In the moment we may feel angry, disappointed, excited… but a coaching conversation isn’t about us. We aren’t there with the purpose of ‘telling’ - we are there with the mindset of learning, so practicing how you can regulate your thoughts and emotions will help you stay present and deeply listening.

Acknowledging others – such a simple one and yet one so often overlooked, especially in a busy work environment. I was once told that others can’t read our thoughts – well duh I thought, but then I realised that there was so much I wasn’t communicating to my team. A well done, a thank you, a I know that was hard for you, you are doing well keep going, I’m sorry that didn’t work out… it’s so easy and it makes the receiver feel seen and valued.

Curiosity: take the learner mindset and ask questions: what, when, who, where, tell me more… seek to discover and mine for the expertise and different perspectives held within your team. We do not, we cannot know everything – there is hugely valuable data in the minds of your team. And it has the added benefit of being a wonderful relationship builder, as we get to know each other on a deeper level.

Silence: silence often makes us uncomfortable and so we talk to fill the gaps. And yet silence can be incredibly powerful as a leadership skill. Allow your team the space to expand on their point / idea/ concern. Trust that they have the innate ability to move things forward. It’s another form of acknowledgement – it helps people feel heard and, when trust iss building it contributes to the message that as the leader you are not here to tell them all the answers – and we trust they can and must resolve certain things themselves.

If we can practice these coaching skills regularly we can receive:

  • Stronger relationships

  • Increased levels of trust

  • Greater psychological safety

  • Increased creativity as we share ideas more freely

  • Greater levels of accountability as the team recognises their place in something bigger than them as an individual

Hooman belonging  to a happy team
Hooman in a team

It doesn’t negate the leadership role – it may well remain that you are the decision maker, but it allows the team to be actively involved in the ideation of the strategy or path you will all take. A route far more likely to foster buy in and accountability.

There is increasing data to support this idea that softer skills… coaching skills, are the way forward for the modern leader.

At all employment levels today, more and more jobs require highly developed social skills. HBR

Graph showing openings for C suite positions needing social skills

And I’m sure that at some point in this read, or in your career, you have had a little voice tell you that you really don’t have time for this – that this would be marvellous if you weren’t already run off your feet DOING. I get that – that’s absolutely what I felt, and it meant that I slipped into knowing and telling mode time and time again, normally related to how stressed I was feeling. All I can share on this was that yes, initially coaching with a team took time, sometimes we took frustrating meandering routes to solutions and results, many times I lost my cool. But when we got more practiced at it, the team, all of us, became better. Because there was greater trust I delegated more, I felt less need to be doing all the time. And I learnt. Those scenic routes uncovered unexpected results and broadened all of our horizons. If progression is on your career agenda, coaching skills are going to help get you there.

Who do I work with?

I work with individuals, teams and organisations, helping them become more self-aware so that they can appreciate choice and make decisions to change with confidence.

My one-to-one clients have a corporate career which, often, is not currently satisfying them. They often don’t know why, because it used to, or because it looks great on the surface. I help them figure out what’s getting in their way and where they want to go next.

My organisational clients are seeking support via coaching, workshops and webinars with leadership development, confidence in business and wellbeing. See what’s available.

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Fancy a free 30 minute session with me?

You can book that directly in my diary here. Mention in the booking if you want to talk about a coaching programme with me, or you just want a stand-alone free 30 minutes coaching session.

I don’t do hassle, I can’t bear it when people try it with me, so be assured I have no chasing policy if you don’t want to continue with me after that.

And for those that like the detail (I’m one of those), have a look at my website, where I aim to provide complete transparency on what to expect – and that includes pricing.


[1] The Leader as Coach, by Herminia Ibarra & Anne Scoular, HBR

International Coaching Federation | UK Charter Chapter

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